"I don't believe it; if it had been that you'd have told me."
"How could I tell 'ee? Wouldn't you, wouldn't any woman, have bidden me hold my tongue till I'd shown what I could do? Would your Da have looked at I for a son?"
"Well, you can't be heart-broken, anyway, or you wouldn't be going to marry Senath Pollard...."
He came and bent over her again, bringing his face very close to hers and trying to hold her eyes with his look, as only a liar does.
"You knaw why I be walking out with Senath ... so as to be able to come here and have no one thinkin' anything. You knaw that as well as my tongue and heart can tell 'ee. Look at me ... don't 'ee knaw it, Phoebe? Don't 'ee?"
She turned her head this way and that to avoid his insistence, but at last she yielded as on that night long ago beside the stile and met look and lips. "I don't believe it," she murmured in a choked whisper, her mouth against his; "but I'm a sinful woman, and there's something in me wishes I could...."
She had come thus far, she whose total lack of moral sense had not suggested to her any reason why, having been the lover of one brother, she should not be the wife of the other; but her stereotyped views, missing the essentials, did revolt, though vainly, against his kisses when she was a wife, even while she burned beneath them. She really was very miserable. Suddenly he released her and leant back with a dark look on his face, a look she knew and dreaded. She resorted to her little wiles to make him shake it off.
"Archelaus!..." she breathed, sliding her hand across his eyes; "don't look like that.... To please me!" She pulled his head towards her and dropped light kisses on his lids to charm the expression out of his eyes, but he remained impassive. She was in a condition when wiles leave a certain kind of man very untouched, and hate for Ishmael, not any charm left for him in her, urged his cunning love-making.
"I can't go on weth it," he declared; "it's no good, Phoebe. What does life hold for I now? Last week I was down in the mine when there was a fall of rock, and for a bit we thought we'd never get out, and I said to myself what did it matter?... it'll only save I the trouble of doen it for myself."
"I put the barrel of my gun against my head t'other day and pulled the trigger, but it missed fire. And then I dedn't try again, because I thought all of a sudden that I must see you once more, Phoebe, and tell 'ee plain all about it—what you and that husband of yours have driven a man to."
"Don't talk to me about Ishmael! At least he's a good man, so he is, and we're neither of us fit to live along of him!"
"Good, is he? Yes; but is he the man for 'ee? Do 'ee ever feel your lil' heart beating the quicker against his? If he'm a man, why don't 'ee tell him everything and let him kick me out, eh?"
"You know I can't tell him—that I couldn't ever."
"He'll knaw when I'm dead, because I'll lave word to show all men how one brother took everything in life from another.... He'll knaw then."
"I don't believe you; I don't believe anyone would be so wicked, even you."
"Ah! there's things in life even you don't knaw anything about, though you'm so wicked yourself," said Archelaus grimly; "but you too 'll knaw a bit more by-and-bye. I won't be able to keep off it for long, Phoebe. Maybe it'll take me suddenly when I'm here one day. You'll hear my life-blood running away, lil' 'un, and think for a minute it's water drippen' somewhere. Or perhaps I'll just take a rope and hang myself, and you'll hear I choken'. I saw a man hung in Australy once for stealen' another man's gold, and he took an awful time to die, he did. You could hear the choken' of him loud as bellows...." Phoebe had turned sickly pale, she screamed out, and thrust him away from her. "Katie!" she called. Archelaus went to the door and shouted into the kitchen. "Your missus is feelen' faint," he informed the maids. "I just looked into the parlour and saw her lyen' all wisht like." Katie bustled past with an odd look at him, and Phoebe was taken up to bed. She was better again next day, but she feared after that to leave her room, and in spite of Ishmael's protests stayed in bed, pleading that she felt giddy whenever she stood up. Twice Archelaus came to the house and had to be content with calling to her through the door, and each time she replied she was not well enough to see him.
He began to fume that his hidden delight of torment, which in his distorted mind was part of his scheme for revenge against Ishmael, was being thwarted; and day by day as he brooded to himself, his thoughts ever on the same theme, the end of all his anger and her fear began to loom, as he had planned. It was chance that eventually played into his hands, but the will and the cunning that made him ripe to catch at it were his already.
Phoebe lay in her big bed, her arms straight out upon the coverlet, listless palms upwards, her eyes closed, and her dim thoughts—the unformed blind thoughts of a resentful child—her only company. A week earlier Ishmael had been called up to Devon to see his mother, who had taken a turn for the worse: she had died a few hours after his arrival; he had had to stay and see to the funeral, and was not due back till that evening. John-James was in the fields and the maids were all in the dairy, working hard to finish the butter for market. Phoebe did not mind—for the first time in her life she preferred to be alone; she found it more and more difficult to control herself in the presence of others, to hide or account for the terror that possessed her. Only when she thought of the little life that in another month she would have brought into the world, that would be nestling against her, did she feel a glow of comfort. Nothing disturbed her joy in that, which she had perforce to pretend was the cause of her depression. As she lay now, with the wrongs done to her and by her stirring in her slow bewildered brain, she banished them by thoughts of that which was to be hers—that solace so far sweeter than the little animals with which she had hitherto filled her days. Poor Wanda, who from much petting had grown to fawn on her almost as much as upon Ishmael, was neglected now, and did not even stretch her woolly length beside the bed, but roamed, alone and melancholy, in the passage, waiting for the well-known loved footstep of her master.
Phoebe curved over in bed, and began to pretend to herself, as when a small child she had been wont to do for the first hour in bed every evening—planning small pleasures, triumphs over the other children she knew—and as when a girl she had been used to lie and imagine thrilling episodes with some dream lover. Now she pretended her baby had already come and was lying beside her; she bunched a fold of bedclothes to make her pretence the more real, and lay cuddling it, her eyes closed so that the sense of sight should not dissipate her dreams. No man had any part in her vision of the future with her baby; it was to be hers alone, and she pictured a blissful period when she played with it, dressed and undressed it, lived for it. Somehow she imagined that all her difficulties would cease with its birth, and both the torment of Archelaus and the presence of Ishmael, which now left her so unstirred it wearied her, faded away. Although she told herself she hated men and the harm they did, she hoped her child would be a boy, because she was of the type of woman, even as Annie had been, that always wants a boy.
She kept her eyes shut and caressed the bundle she had made beside her, and tried to forget her physical condition and her mental worry in the joy she was forecasting.
"Phoebe ... lil' 'un ... I'm come," said a voice from the other side of her bedroom door. Her lids flew up; a great spasm of terror shot through her, making her sick and setting her heart pounding. She saw the last warm glow of the evening in the square of sky, its light tingeing the white bedroom with fire; she saw the bundle in the curve of her arm was only a roll of sheet and blanket whose striped edge of pink and blue somehow for an irrational moment engaged her attention, so vivid had her dreaming been, so incongruous was this sudden recall. Then she turned over in bed towards the door, panic in her breast, and her whole body swept by the hot waves of fear. She had locked the door, as she always did now, but the tones, soft as they were, had power to frighten her even through the stout wood.
She lay silent, hoping he would think she was asleep, not making a sound.
"I do want to see 'ee that bad," came the voice. She paid no heed, but clenched her hands under the bedclothes; her heart had settled into an even thunderous beating that to her ears almost deafened the voice that provoked its action.
"I've come to say good-bye," went on the voice. "Won't 'ee just say good-bye to I? I'm going to another world this time, not to Australy or Californy. I can't stand life any longer, Phoebe; you'll just wish I a good journey for the last? 'Tes a hard voyage, I fear."
Her self-control broke; she could no longer hold her tongue, a sick belief in his words struggling with the conviction, born of her wish, that he would never carry out his threat.
"Go away, Archelaus! I wish you'd go away and leave me in peace. I don't believe you'll do no such wickedness; you're only trying to frighten me, and it's wicked, with me so near my time and no one with me. Go away, Archelaus!"
"You don't believe me ...? Just lie there in your soft bed and listen, then," said Archelaus through the door. "You'll soon knaw whether I'm a man to be believed or not. Good-bye, lil' Phoebe!"
She heard him go downstairs, caught the well-known creak of two of them—one at the top, the other near the bottom, which always creaked; she could gauge his descent by them. Then came the harder ring of his boots upon the nags of the passage. Then for a while all was quiet, while she lay with straining ears trying to ignore the sound of her own heart that she might better hear any sounds below.
Upon her incredulous senses came a faint scrabbling noise, a scuffling sound, clearly audible through the old worn boarding of the floor; it was followed by the sharp clatter of an overturned chair. Then came to her a noise so often described by him that for one moment it seemed she had heard it before, as sometimes in a day after a vivid dream the events dreamed of seem for an irrational recurring moment actually to have happened. A noise of choking....
It went on and on, a sound no acting could have counterfeited—a wild choking, a frenzy of protest made by compressed lungs and windpipe. The choking went on and then grew fainter; at last it died away. Phoebe lay soaked in sweat, her hands clutching the side of the bed, her rising beats of pulses and heart confusing the sense of sound so much that she hardly knew when the suggestive noise from below had really ceased.
It might have only been a few minutes she stayed there, it might have been an hour or more, for all she could have told; but at last, driven by her fear, she half-fell from the bed and found the door. She drew the bolt with fingers that did not feel it, opened the door, and crept to the head of the stairs. Not a sound came up to her. She put one bare foot forward, drew it back, then impelled by something stronger than her own will, she began the descent, holding on by the wall. She went down the first flight, turned the corner—without looking up, for she felt very giddy—and then went on down the stairs, still groping. At their foot she took a step or two along the passage and suddenly felt the shock of something solid and hairy against her face. She screamed out and looked up and saw what it was that had made those ominous sounds, that had choked out life swinging from a beam of the hall. Poor Wanda hung dead, her head limply to one side, her tongue out, her furry paws, that had pattered with so much energy and glee in her master's service, dangling helplessly.
PHOEBE PAYS TOLL
When Ishmael returned a few hours later no one had thought to cut down the body of Wanda. Everyone was too occupied with Phoebe, and those people who had come in by the hall had merely thrust the dangling obstruction aside and hurried on, with only a thought to it as the cause of the trouble upstairs. Ishmael, finding his beloved dog hanging thus, coming on it without a word of warning, felt a shock, a sense of unbelievable outrage that made him for a moment or two think he must be dreaming or out of his mind. He put out a hand and touched the pitiful thing before conviction came upon him, and with a shout of rage and pain he gathered Wanda in his arms, calling her name, hoping for a twitch of life. Then he whipped out his knife and sawed through the cord and lowered the body upon the floor, felt for the heart, turned up the dropped eyelids, even shook the inanimate stiffening form of his pet. He knew it was in vain—that never again would she jump trustingly upon him, never again would she appear absurdly with one of his slippers in her wide mouth that always seemed to smile at the joke, coming down the drive to greet him; that never again would he have her for his untiring companion on his walks or upon the plateau where he was wont to lie and look into her wise eyes and talk to her without fear of contradiction, receiving that full measure of admiration and belief that only a dog gives. So much was his grief, but overpowering that simpler emotion was a sick rage. The knowledge that rough, brutal hands must have carried out this outrage, that in an agony of fear and astonishment she must have yielded up her breath, struck at his heart. He got to his feet, and carrying the body into the parlour, laid it down, then went through to the kitchen. The dairymaid was standing over a kettle of water that was heating on the fire; the other maid stood near her. They had evidently been talking together earnestly when he burst in upon them; they had not even heard his approach. Both girls seemed excited, charged with portent beyond the ordinary. They stood staring at Ishmael, mouths open.
"What is the meaning of it?" he shouted at them. "How is it you are both in here like this, and with—that left in the passage? Has everyone gone mad? What has happened?"
"Oh, maister!" ejaculated one of them, "havn't 'ee heard?"
"Heard what? I come in and find my poor dog—" He broke off; he could not bring himself to utter the words that would tell what he had come upon.
"Missus got out of the bed and found someone had hung the dog, and her was took all of a sudden, and the doctor is overstairs weth her now," the girl informed him; and through all her commiseration the ghoulish delight of her kind in misfortune showed. "She'm mortal bad, they do say," she added.
Ishmael stood still where he was. His mind had been subjected to too violent an onslaught for this fresh news to break upon it with much added weight. Dimly aware that the standard of these other people would expect him hardly to notice the death of his dog when his wife was in danger, he did not speak again of Wanda, but all his loyalty of affection went out to the furry body lying helplessly in the deserted parlour, as all his sense of horror had been absorbed by the finding of it. After that everything seemed to him more or less dreamlike; an impersonal pity and anxiety he felt and deeply, but it was as though he stood and looked on at Phoebe from outside of himself as much as from outside of her.
He was first stirred to active realisation by the expression of her physical pain; when he heard her cries, rising and falling, piercing the calm autumn night, he went into the garden and tried to stop his ears, but the thin poignancy of those cries still rang in them. He went back to the parlour, and picking up the body of poor Wanda, carried it out to a spot of the garden where the sun fell the longest, and there, beneath a rambler rose bush, began to dig her grave furiously. Suddenly it struck him as rather awful that it should be a grave he was busy over at such a moment, and he stopped. Then his deadly sense of proportion that never would leave him alone for long told him how little it really mattered, and he went on with his work. Wanda was covered by a smoothed patch of earth—he wanted no mound to bring the memory of the pity of her before him—by the time the flame in his lantern had flickered and died, and the late moon was riding high in the sky. He put on his coat and went again to the house.
Phoebe's ordeal was not over till broad day had appeared and the usual sounds of farm-life had perforce begun again. With them there mingled a fresh note—the cry of the new-born child, insistent, wailing, plaintive; but the cries of its mother had ceased. She lay silent in her exhaustion, amid the dim looming of the horror that had encompassed her, and she showed no interest even in the desired babe that had been laid in the curve of her arm as she had pictured him not twelve hours before.
The ordeal had been too much for Phoebe in her weak condition; she was never to recover from the terror of that minute or hour when she had lain and listened, as she thought, and as he had meant her to think, to Archelaus hanging himself in the passage below. The child, though born prematurely and for the first few weeks a sickly little creature enough, gradually strengthened, but Phoebe's life flickered lower each hour. She did not seem frightened at the approach of death, if she realised it, which was doubtful. It was as though she had used up all of emotion before and had no strength left to indulge in any now. That was how Ishmael too had felt all those first hours after his homecoming; but with a short spell of heavy, irresistible sleep the power to feel returned to him, and he was even surprised at the depth to which he felt a pang. He had not "loved" Phoebe in the sense in which that much-abused word is generally used; he had felt for her a passion which was in itself a reaction and an affection which had diminished and not augmented in their life together. But intimacy and custom go far towards producing that sense of knowledge of another human being which makes the imagination translate what the other is suffering into terms of self, and that is after all the method by which the most vivid human sympathy is evoked. He felt he knew her so well—her aims and ideas, her likes and little gusty hates, her sweetnesses and her pettiness—that he suffered with her now more acutely than she for herself.
Also, as her life drew out, and that feeling of something focussing, of many tangled threads all being drawn together, which the approach of death gives, took hold of the watchers, all the external things which go to make life fell away from him and the stark roots of it stood out. This had been his mate, this fragile little thing lying there, her listless eyes not meeting his, her limp fingers not responding to any touch. She had been nearer to him physically than any other human being, and that she had been further mentally was swamped in that thought in the hour when she was dying of the nearness.... For he had the guilty feeling of the man whose wife dies in childbirth, and though he told himself that whatever passing brute had wantonly hung the harmless dog had brought about this tragedy, that could not altogether absolve him. His poor little Phoebe—he had always known her soft heart for animals, but even he had not guessed that the tragedy of Wanda would affect her so—she who had seen so many animals killed with much less sickening than he himself.
As he sat by the bed there flashed on him an irrational memory of that day in the field when the girls had found a wounded toad amidst the oat-sheaves, and how he had come up to them as they clustered round it in their pale gowns. It had been Blanche who had been most articulate in her pity, and yet Blanche had not scrupled to hurt him when it suited her. Phoebe, till these months of irritation and the dislike which had seemed to spring in her, had never wilfully hurt anyone. He felt he knew all of Phoebe there had been to know, and his heart softened over her as she slipped away from any power of his to tell her so.
That flattened little form under the crumpled coverlet was Phoebe's, was the same body with which she had given him so much delight. This was the Phoebe who had hung about his neck in the valley and smothered his words upon his lips with kisses—she who had taught him her own knowledge of love, that instinctive knowledge of Aspasia and her sisters; it was through her he had become a man. So he felt now looking at her.
With dawn, the day after the child's birth, it became plain that she could hold the frail thread of her life no longer. The nurse sat on one side of the bed; the doctor had not yet come back after leaving to attend another case. The child lay beside her, because the only time she spoke or showed any interest that night she had asked for it. Now she lay either asleep or already unconscious, her hair all pushed away from her face, which had fallen into hollows. She looked far older than her years—older than it would have been possible to imagine she ever could look.
Ishmael sat very still, his mind as quiescent as his body; it was as though it had been hypnotised by its steady concentration on her approaching death as by the steady keeping of the eyes fixed on some one glittering object. All around that one point thought had ceased; impalpable walls shut off from consciousness everything else in the scheme of things. The focussing in the quiet room sharpened, grew more intense; the liquid light of dawn began to flood the air, and a bright shaft shot across the hill as the sun swam up over the rim of the moor. It fell across the bed, and Phoebe stirred and opened her eyes. Their gaze rested blankly on Ishmael, wandered round the room, then fell to the round head against her shoulder.
The shaft of sun lay upon the baby's reddish fair fluff of hair, and the brightness of it seemed to arrest Phoebe's look, as it might have the unreasoning gaze of a child. She put out one wavering hand and tried to touch it; her direction was uncertain, and the hand fell again without reaching more than the outskirts of the beam. Thinking she wished to touch the child, the nurse guided her hand, and as Phoebe felt her fingers fall about the curve of its head a faint look of content passed across her face. Then she tried to make as though to lift her hand, but it fell sideways. The nurse moved the baby nearer her, but it was not that that Phoebe wanted; she kept trying to touch the gleam of sun upon the white quilt. Ishmael felt a pang go through him as he remembered the girl who had once before tried to pick the sun....
A few moments later the child, as though stirred by some prescience, began to whimper and make little struggling movements—Phoebe had died as simply as she had lived, and as secretively.
THE DISCOVERING OF NICKY
There followed for Ishmael a time when the sordidness inseparable from a death in a civilised country made of everything a hideousness, and he was aware of a rising tide of irritability in himself that he found it difficult to keep within the decorous bounds of the subdued aspect required from a newly-made widower. Later, after the funeral was over and life at the Manor had somewhat settled down again, with the incongruous addition of a nurse, he began to feel that unkind touch of the ludicrous which accompanies the position of a young man left with a baby on his hands. He was ashamed of this feeling and tried to suppress it, but it was there nevertheless. It ceased to twinge when Vassie came down, her husband with her, to pay him a visit—partly because, he guessed, it was to see that all was being done for the baby's welfare in such a masculine house that she had come.
Vassie was resplendent, and if she did not love her husband ecstatically she was intensely proud of him. She had become an enthusiastic Radical, and talked of the rights of the people as to the manner bred. Ishmael suppressed a smile, feeling himself completely the embodiment of opposite views, and liked her husband in spite of it. He was just not quite a gentleman—a little too vivid, too clever, too emphatic; but that he would go far even the Parson believed. Ishmael was grateful to the pair for coming, and never asked Vassie why she, who held such socialistic views, had not come to stay when Phoebe was alive.
Afterwards he realised the chief debt he owed to Vassie was that she first opened his eyes to the delightfulness of his child. One evening of winter he happened to come in earlier than usual, at the sacred hour of the bath, and Vassie promptly pounced on him and made him come up to the room she had arranged according to her modern ideas—the modernity of '69—as a nursery. A fire leapt in the grate from behind a thing like a wire meat-safe that Ishmael had never seen before and that had never been considered necessary to keep him or his brothers from a fiery death. Before it was spread a creamy-hued blanket, on which stood an oval bath from whose lip a cloud of steam wavered up, the incense of this ritual. Vassie sat beside it, a towel over her knees, and sprawling upon it, its bent legs kicking in the air, its tiny fists clutching at everything and nothing with the instinctive grasp of life, lay the baby.
James Nicholas Ruan—so called after his uncle and the Parson—was a little over three months old, just the age when a baby begins to be attractive even to a male observer.
Ishmael watched him as Vassie skilfully dipped and dried him, turning him about on her lap to dust the powder into the interstices of his tiny person, and, far from resenting this as an indignity, he seemed to think it all a huge joke. Yet the jollity of him, his sudden smiles and his clutchings and wavings, all seemed addressed to himself alone—part of some life he alone knew, some vision he alone could see. As he was soaped and patted, and powdered and turned, there was always the air about him of a being really supremely independent of everyone; although his body seemed so helpless one got the impression that his soul was thoroughly aloof, untouched. When he laughed at the efforts of the grown-ups to please him it was a sublime condescension, that was all. When something failed to please him he was recalled to the things of this world and set up a loud wail, which filled Ishmael with anxiety, though Vassie and the nurse remained unaccountably calm. The baby evidently was of their opinion, because he left off wailing with the suddenness with which he had begun, and finally was tucked into his cradle and fell soundly asleep, one tiny hand flung palm upwards upon the pillow by his head after the manner of babies from time immemorial.
Ishmael, though he had first held aloof and then been terrified when Vassie insisted on his taking the fragile little body in his arms, had yet felt a thrill go through him when he did so. It was not possible for a man to have the feeling for the land that he had and not both crave for a child and feel a deep-rooted emotion at its possession. Yet it was more than that, he told himself, when he felt the warm little body utterly dependent on him. He had taken him up before often enough, but never in the intimacy of this evening, which held the quality of a shrine.
He showed nothing of what he felt, but that evening, after Vassie and her ever-talking husband had settled themselves in the parlour, he went up again to the nursery and told the nurse she could go downstairs for a little while. Then he crossed over to the cot and, drawing back the curtain, looked down at the little morsel lying asleep in it. This was his son, this small rosy thing, his son that would one day walk his land beside him and would eventually take it over as his own. This was flesh of his flesh as no wife could ever be, and soul of his soul as well.
As he looked the baby began to whimper and opened its eyes, of the milky blue of a kitten's. Ishmael went on his knees beside the cot, and eager, absurdly eager, to be able to cope with the situation successfully himself, spoke as soothingly as he knew how. The baby's whimper became a cry. His little hand beat the air. Ishmael struck his forefinger into the tiny palm, and the little fingers curled round it with that amazing tenacity of babies, who can clutch and suck before they can do anything else—getting, always getting, from life, like all young things. The baby hung firmly on to the finger and his cries died down; his mouth twitched and puckered to an absurd smile. Ishmael felt an exquisite glow suffuse his tired heart that had been so dry for months. He dared not make a sound for fear he broke the spell of contentment that held the baby and himself; he stayed with his finger enwrapped by those tiny clinging fingers till long after the baby had fallen asleep again. Then he crept from the room, and meeting the nurse his face assumed a blank and casual expression. But his heart guarded the glow that had been lit, which grew within him.
He began to work at Cloom as never before, because this time he was not working for himself. As the baby grew and became more and more of a delight and a companion—and a baby can be an excellent companion—he felt within him a steady gleam that did not flicker with the mood of the hour as so many gleams will. He told himself, as he settled into a manner of life and thought of which the child was the inalienable centre, that this was indeed the greatest thing in life. Before this, desire paled and self died down; in the white light of this love all others faded in smoke, except the love of heaven, of which it was a part. By heaven he meant not only the future state of the soul, but the earth on which he trod, and the only thing likely to become pernicious during the years that followed was his obsession with the one idea and his certainty that he had found the great secret.
Yet in spite of the passion which held him, and which he told himself was the master passion, there at times, and more as the years went on, would arise in him the old feeling—the feeling that something must surely happen, that round the corner awaited events of which the mere expectation made each day's awakening a glowing thing. Life was young and insistent in his veins, and with the lifting dawns, the recurrent springs, it began to sing anew—for him as apart from his child. Not yet had he found any one thing to make the complete round, to give him enough whereby to live without further questioning.
While little Nicky was still too young to need troubling over in the matter of schooling, Ishmael yet found himself for the first time considering the subject, not so much as it would affect his child, but as it bore upon the children of the countryside—children such as his own brothers had been, as he might have been himself.... The Education Act had not long been passed, for it was the spring of '72 when Ishmael began to take an active part in its administration in the West. He was still a young man, but the happenings and circumstances of his life had made for thoughtfulness, and association with his firebrand brother-in-law was turning that thought into more definite channels than formerly. Ishmael was becoming less a philosophic dreamer, and he began to feel within himself the stirring of desire to do things. Not that he had ever been idle, but his own little corner of the world and the definite work he had had to do in it had hitherto filled the practical part of life for him. Now that Cloom was so far set upon the upward way as to allow him more liberty, bigger though not dearer ideas began to germinate within him.
The years his youth had seen were stirring enough; the excitements and scandals of the Crimean War, the chief topic during the time just before he went to St. Renny, had been followed, in his first year there, by the tragedy of the Mutiny and the wild stories that had filled the land at the time. Then, even in Cornwall, the question of the liberation of slaves had been a burning one, and that, combined with the sad tales of distress caused in the North and Midlands, had made the American war a live matter. Ever since he had heard Russell and Gladstone fighting for the doomed Reform Bill of '66—heard, above all, Bright's magic flow of words—the political world had held a reality for him it never had before. Ever since he too had been swept with the crowds to Hyde Park on that memorable day when the people of England had shown their will so plainly he had felt within him a rising sense of the necessity of reforms. Not till he met his brother-in-law, Dan, had it really become clear to him that there lay his own path.... Up till then, after the fashion of the young who have not been directly incited either by upbringing or an exceptional temperament to deeds bigger than themselves, he had been very engrossed with the personal life of himself and those he knew. Whenever he had projected beyond that—as he did in a degree incomprehensible to his family—it had been into the intangible regions of the spirit.
Now, with the first fine rapture of youth already faded, but its enthusiasm left burning for scope, with his emotional capacities exhausted for a long time to come and his mind sickened of the intimate matters of life, now he was ripening every day for the more material but impersonal energies involved in helping other people's minds and bodies. As usual, any measure took far longer to sink in in Cornwall than up-country, and the Education Bill might for long have remained an empty sound as far as Penwith was concerned if it had not been for Boase, Ishmael, and several others of the local gentry. The Nonconformists were still bitter against it, and there were riots and much heartburning among the poor. They resented having their children sent to school to learn more than their parents instead of helping them by earning almost as soon as their little legs could stagger. Indignation meetings were held in the local chapels, and the Parson was once stoned from behind a hedge. He, though by nature a Conservative, was too truly a wise as well as a compassionate man not to see the crying need for reforms, and though of necessity he deplored the creeping in of undenominationalism, yet he knew his parish was too poor to support adequate Church schools, and he was glad enough to see children in a way to receive some education. He smiled at the idea of the Bible being "explained" without a leaning to any particular creed, but he relied on his own Sunday school to supply that want. Also perhaps even he was not averse to supporting what had so violently the disapprobation of the Nonconformists.... There was no particular force in the objections of these latter in that district, as the Church school, the only one for miles, would not be large or convenient enough to come under the State aid of the Bill, so almost from the first it was a matter of building one of the new Board schools, where the undenominational system abhorred by Boase would be all that would hold sway.
Ishmael's first definite outward movement came about on an evening when Boase came up to the Manor to see him and the Flynns, who were staying with him at the time. Nicky was then three years old, and a daily growing delight to Ishmael, but the Parson was not without a guileful plot to wean him somewhat from that allegiance. He had begun to consider—probably because Daniel Flynn, deeply as he disagreed from him in many respects, had stirred him to the wider issues—that Ishmael must be made to take a hand in other affairs than the ordering of his estate and the upbringing of his son. He had watched with alarm the increasing inwardness of the man he loved, to him always the boy he remembered—an inwardness not towards egoism, for that Ishmael's distrust of individualism, would always prevent, but towards a vague Quietism that enwrapped him more and more. His son, deeply as he engrossed him, rather increased this trend than otherwise, and Boase, casting about for other influences, had irresistibly thought of Flynn.
Daniel Flynn was a living mass of contradictions. An Irishman and a disciple of the O'Connell tradition, he was yet—though the word had not then been coined—an Imperialist, for his Canadian sympathies were strong, and he knew that not yet could the Colonies be entirely cut loose from the Mother Country. A Liberal, he had been an ardent supporter of the Dominion scheme evolved under the Tory Government of Derby. He revered the memory of Durham, that large-ideaed, generous-hearted, spectacular nobleman whose crime had been to hold by the spirit rather than by the letter, and whom Dan declared to be the father not only of Canada, but of the modern Colonial system. Though he held the Crimean War to be an error of policy and the Chinese War of '57 to be an abomination, he never joined with those of Palmerston's detractors who accused him of being too French in his sympathies. He inveighed against all wars in the abstract, yet raged at the loyalty of O'Connell, which, by stopping short at the use of rebellious force, had alienated his adherents; and he himself had borne arms for Garibaldi. He had been among the most passionate critics of the manner in which the trial of the Manchester Fenians had been conducted and at the sentence pronounced against them, but his Imperialist and O'Connellised self had deprecated the action of the Fenians in the first place. He was a Catholic by blood and an agnostic by temperament; the former made him abhor blasphemy, and the latter definite boundaries. He was a follower of Russell, that aristocrat of reform, and yet voted against his Reform Bill, as many Liberals did, because it was half-hearted. He was an Irish-Canadian and sat for a manufacturing town in the Midlands.
Daniel Flynn was a man whose brain was too finely balanced not to see fairly, but whose sympathies were so passionately partisan they were for ever swaying action to one side or other of the true point of equity. On this evening the Parson found him in fine fettle for a talk, and if necessary for a fight. He was sitting in the parlour with Vassie, but his whole soul was with a letter he had had from Ireland telling of a disastrous case where the new Irish Land Act, of which even Dan had hoped great things, had failed more signally than usual.
"Listen to this," he burst forth almost as soon as Boase was seated, "and tell me if that fool Government doesn't want hanging as high as those poor Fenians! Here's a man in my own country, where the little cabin is that saw me born, before ever me father took me to the new country; and his landlord has told him he'll not give him a penny piece for the shed and the new wall and the garden patch he's made out of the bare earth with his own hands. And him going to America, and the money the scoundrel ought to pay him for them would take his family across in comfort, and his wife with child at the blessed moment!"
Boase held his head in comic bewilderment, and Dan laughed a little and calmed down.
"And why can't he make the landlord pay, you'd ask? Because the spalpeen had it in writing from him when the Bill was passed that if he put on a new roof to keep the wet off a dying child he should never enforce the terms of the Act against him.... Didn't I vote against the Act because of the very clause allowing that? I knew the landlords and the devil's tricks they'd be up to.... Saving your presence, Ishmael, old fellow, landlords are the scum of the earth!"
"At least you can't accuse me of being an absentee landlord," said Ishmael, smiling.
"No, indeed," chimed in Vassie almost indignantly. "If you knew all he's done here, Dan, it's like a miracle. I don't believe wages or the standard of living could be lower in Ireland than they were here when Ishmael took the place in hand."
"I believe you," said Flynn. "It's myself thinks Ishmael has it in him to be a grand reformer; that's why I can't bear to see him wasting himself over morals and manure when he could be working away at the bettering of the world."
Ishmael laughed, but the Parson took up the suggestion seriously.
"The world's a large order," he said, "but this particular corner of it, perhaps.... There's several matters down here would be the better for the gentry taking more interest in them. These new school boards, for instance—"
"Ah, the children...!" cried Flynn, the light of the enthusiast springing into his fine eyes. "They're what matter, when all's said and done. If we get the children we get the world. Every generation has in it the millennium, the seeds of Utopia."
"The phantom cities of Fata Morgana ..." said the Parson with a sigh. "But we're all the better for sighting them, even so. What d'you think of the suggestion, Ishmael?"
"What? I didn't know there'd been one made."
"That you should be on this new board," said the Parson boldly. "Lord Luxullyan has had to retire through illness; he himself suggested you should take his place."
Ishmael was stricken silent for a moment. The idea seemed to him a little absurd, but Boase and Flynn, both of whom he respected, seemed alight with enthusiasm. He thought it over as well as he could in a short space. Perhaps there might be something in it after all. He remembered his own youth, how, if it had not been for the especial interest taken in him by the Parson, he, like his brothers, might have had to be content with the bare elements of reading and writing imbibed at the local dame school whenever Annie chose they should go. Tom had been the only one to educate himself further by his own efforts; he himself, he believed, would never have done as much as Tom. All around him he saw the children of his tenants growing up in ignorance, too ill-educated even to respond to his schemes for advancing them, for their better health and conditions of labour. He knew there was opposition to this new scheme, that the Parson had come in for a share of obloquy, and that the parents themselves, in some cases were their children's enemies. And lastly, in that swift flashing before him of these thoughts, came the image of Nicky—of Nicky whose intelligence was daily showing as a brighter thing, whose jolly little presence meant so much of the future to him, on whom he was building his own life-work as he had up till now conceived of it. How if it were his Nicky who was destined never to learn, never to be pulled out of the slough of deadly content, never to know any of the things that make life rich and the horizon not only the material one proscribed by locality? The countryside was full of little Nickies—not so finely dowered by nature, doubtless thicker of skull and soul, but still little Nickies.... Better co-workers with Nicky these could be made. For the first time he saw not only Cloom and his own tenants, but the whole countryside that he knew so well, growing finer, freer.
And it was all about a school board! An ordinary enough thing now, when custom has staled it and the many faults in the system have become visible; but, printing once invented, school boards could no more be held back than the eventual express railway engine once Hero of Alexandria had made his little experiments with a steam kettle. About the benefit of either there may be two opinions, but none about their inevitability.
At the time of the Forster Act the school board was a new and thrilling thing, one more sign of the approaching day when reform should have made a perfect world. Very famous and great people did not scorn to sit upon it, and the whole movement was considered in the light of a benevolent revolution. Ishmael, seeing with the eyes of his age and time, tingled to the thought. It was the first occasion on which the cup of ambition had been held before him, and to him it was momentous. He said little, but did not try and dissuade the Parson when he declared he would take the matter to the authorities, and he listened to Flynn for the rest of that evening with less the sensation of the outsider, the mere onlooker, than ever before.
Reform, reform, was Daniel's theme, especially the reform of the whole voting system. He was a keen advocate of increased franchise and the ballot, and here the Parson differed from him. The Parson, in his heart of hearts, would have taken the vote away from most of the people he knew; he would certainly not have enlarged its scope, and as to the system of the secret ballot-box, he was too used to knowing what all his parishioners did with their votes and to guiding their hands.... There were steps he could not take with Flynn; but Ishmael, listening, began to waver in his allegiance towards the Parson. His own nature would have supported the idea of secret voting even if his progressive spirit, the eager spirit of youth that can put all right, had not urged him to be on the side of things new. Already he had once or twice found himself failing to support the Parson's advocacy of Derby, and in debate upheld Gladstone against Disraeli. This evening it dawned upon him that Boase was not infallible, that times had moved past him.... The dear old Parson, of course he would always feel just the same about him; but after all he had stayed down here too long and was getting old ... he could not be expected to know as much as younger men.
It was only towards the end of the evening that Ishmael's complacency received a slight prick that made it waver. Dan had told of an Irishman who, after winning a case against his landlord, had hidden behind a hedge and shot him on the way home from the court.
"It was his heart was broken by all the trouble of it," said Flynn, "and when the victory was his he didn't want it. If he'd lost his case he wouldn't have done it. But it's a difficult thing to get into the head of a jury, especially when it's a packed jury of black Protestants from the North."
"We don't make nearly enough account, in our laws or our private lives, of which of the two great divisions any deed falls into," said the Parson.
"What divisions?" asked Flynn curiously.
"The divisions of what one may call the primary and secondary—I mean, if a deed be born of itself, a pure creation, or whether it is the result of a reaction. I have had more girls 'go wrong' after a religious revival than at any other time. Pure reaction! I firmly believe reaction is at the bottom of half the marriages and all the divorces of the world."
"It's at the back of quite half the crime," assented Flynn, "and murder should certainly be classified under that distinction."
"It's at the bottom of nearly all the decisive steps in a man's own life," said Ishmael thoughtfully. He was thinking that his self-created impulses seemed to have ceased with the death of his love for Blanche. She and Cloom had both been passions born of their own inevitable necessity. But his marriage came under the heading of "reaction" if ever anything did. He wondered whether this new fire he felt beginning to warm him did not partake of some quality of reaction also—reaction from the dreams and undisciplined longings of adolescence which had served him so badly. At the thought the glow died down, and greyness spread over the vague budding schemes that had begun to swell life out.
"But one mustn't confuse the law of reactions with that of cause and effect," the Parson went on, "which it is easy to do if you let yourself think sloppily."
Dan pounced on the point eagerly. "No, indeed, or it's all reforms would be only on the secondary plane, instead of which any reform worthy the name is a pure impulse of creation. I don't believe any deed, public or private, of the finest calibre can come under the head of the secondary type."
"Perhaps not," said Boase, "but it's all the more important a distinction. Both the foolish and the criminal deed are less blameworthy if they are the result of some violent reaction, even if the fine deed is the less unalloyed."
Thinking it over that night with his accustomed honesty, Ishmael came to the conclusion that it was the law of cause and effect, and not the law of reactions, which prompted his new stirrings, and he was as nearly right as any man may be about his own motive power.
THE NATION AND NICKY
The school board was only a beginning, and, though Ishmael never yielded to Dan's persuasiveness to the extent of standing for Parliament, he took an increasing share in local administration. Reform was in the air; it was the great time of reforms, when men burned over what would now seem commonplaces, so used are we become to the improvements these men made.
When Gladstone dissolved Parliament in '74 and made his appeal to the country to reinstate the Liberals, Ishmael boldly made up his mind as to his own convictions and supported the Liberal candidate. But England was sick of the Liberals, in spite of the reforms of the late Government. The dread of Home Rule, the defeat of the Ministry over the unpopular Irish Universities Bill, and the ill-feeling aroused by the payment of the fine to the United States for the depredations of the Alabama—which was to have marked the beginning of a new era when all troubles would be settled by arbitration—these things had all, though none had loomed as large in the popular imagination as the great Tichborne case, contributed to the weariness felt where Mr. Gladstone was concerned. Ishmael, unswayed by the childish temper of the nation, based his convictions chiefly upon the condition of the lower classes, which he had too good cause to know was entirely unsatisfactory. Not all the old English squiredom of Mr. Disraeli—surely the most incongruous figure of a squire that ever gave prizes to a cap-touching tenantry—could persuade Ishmael that the labourer might live and rear a family in decency on ten shillings a week. The labourer had just sprung into prominence in the eyes of the world, but Ishmael had known him intimately for years. The Ballot Act having been passed in '72, this election held a charm, a secret excitement, new in political history; but in West Penwith the people were so anxious to impress Ishmael with the fact that they had voted the way he wished, or if it were the Parson whose favour they coveted, to tell that gentleman that the Conservative candidate had had the benefit of their votes, that much of the objective of voting by ballot was lost. Except, as Ishmael observed, that they were all quite likely to be lying anyway....
As all the world knows, Gladstone's party failed to get in, largely owing to the influence of the publicans and brewers, who had been alarmed at his attempts to regulate the liquor traffic, and Mr. Disraeli came into power; the pendulum had swung once more. Daniel Flynn had paid a flying visit to the West and made a few impassioned speeches in favour of the Liberal candidate, and Ishmael had driven him about the country. If Blanche Grey could have looked ahead she might have seen fit to stand by her bargain after all. That Vassie and her Irish firebrand should sit at dinner with Lord Luxullyan, that Ishmael should be called upon to receive with the other county potentates a Royal princeling on a tour in the West—who could have foretold these things? Certainly not Ishmael himself; and though the Parson had had limitless ambitions for him, he had never thought of them in actual terms.
Neither was Boase altogether happy about the path in life of his spiritual son, although that path seemed to lead, in its unobtrusive manner, upward. It was an age when materialism was to the fore, when the old faiths had not yet seen their way to harmonise with the undeniable facts of science, when morality itself was of a rather priggish and material order. And Ishmael would in not so many years now be reaching the most material time of life—middle age. At present he was very much under the sway of two entirely different people—Daniel Flynn and little Nicky.
When Nicky reached the age of eight years he was entrancing, very much of a personage, and to Ishmael a delightful enigma. Nicky was so vivid, so full of passing enthusiasm, so confident of himself, with none of the diffidence that had burdened Ishmael's own youth. He was not a pretty boy, but a splendidly healthy-looking one, with fair hair, not curly, but rough, that defied all the blandishments of Macassar oil, and long limbs, rather supple than sturdy, for ever growing out of his clothes. He had the pretty coaxing ways of a young animal—Phoebe's ways, with a bolder dash in them; and his brown eyes looked at one so frankly that it was a long time before Ishmael could bring himself to understand that this son of his was apparently without any feeling for the truth. It was not so much that he lied as that he seemed incapable of discriminating between the truth and a lie; whatever seemed the most pleasant thing to say at the moment Nicky said, and hoped for the best. It was a problem, but Boase was less worried by it than the young father.
"Children often seem to have a natural affinity for the false instead of the true," he said, "and they grow out of it when they begin to see more plainly. The great thing is not to frighten him so that he doesn't dare admit it when he's lied."
Ishmael accepted the Parson's advice thankfully; besides having a distaste for the idea of corporal punishment, he could hardly have borne to hurt the eager, bright creature who always hung about him so confidingly when in the mood, but who had no compunction in not going near him for days, except to say good-morning and good-night, when in one of his elusive fits.
Vassie, who had no children of her own, adored her little nephew, and was very proud of him, so one way and another it was not remarkable that Nicky was in a fair way to be spoilt. Already he was too much aware of his own charm, of the fact that to these kind but rather stupid people, whom it was so easy to deceive, he was wonderful. He seemed to be a clean-natured boy, but what he did and did not know it would have been hard to say, as, added to a certain secretiveness which in different ways both Phoebe and Ishmael possessed, there was in him a strain of elusiveness; you could not coerce him to a definiteness he did not wish any more than you could catch a butterfly by stabbing at it in air with a needle.
Ishmael would sometimes observe him quietly when the boy was unaware of scrutiny, and always the mere sight of the round close-cropped head, the delicious idle busyness of childhood, the air at once of import and carelessness it holds, disarmed and captured him. It seemed to him to be his own younger self he was watching, and the pathos of unconscious youth, slipping, slipping, imperceptibly but swiftly, struck at his heart. How little while ago it seemed since he had been like Nicky, intent on profound plans, busy in a small but vivid sphere which focussed in self, which swayed and expanded and grew incredibly bright or dark beyond hope at such slight happenings! Looking back on his own childhood, drawing on it for greater comprehension of his Nicky, he never could connect it up with his present self, it always seemed to him a different Ishmael that he saw, who had nothing to do with the one he knew nowadays. He saw his own figure, small and alive, as he might have looked at some quite other person into whose nature he had been gifted with the power to see clearly, not as himself younger, less developed. In the same way he regarded his early manhood, when he looked back upon the ardent boy who had loved Blanche and staked all of intensity that apparently he was capable of on that one personality. Phoebe too....
With memory of her he felt more alien still, unless he were looking at Nicky; then he would have a queer sensation that he was seeing some embodiment of what she had stood for to the passionate Ishmael who had married her. Sometimes he wondered what it would have been like if she had not died.... She would have lost her charm perhaps, become coarser—or would that peculiar dewy softness of hers have survived the encroachments of the years? Further apart they would inevitably have grown; less and less of sympathy between them would have been inevitable. So much his honesty had to admit. Passion, which he flattered himself he had so mastered, almost as though it had been shocked out of him on that terrible night of waiting for its fruit to come and rend the mother's life away from her—would passion have lived? He knew that as anything individual between her and him it could not have, so that he would always have been meaning to deny its claims, and would always have been falling into what would have become a mere custom of the flesh impossible to break, only yielding, after years of it, to boredom.
From that he had been saved, and he gave thanks without pretence, for with the freedom of his body was enwrapped the freedom of his soul. Yet he was still a young man when Nicky was nearing "double figures"—only in the early thirties. To him the years that had passed since Nicky's birth were so different in quality from all that had gone before that it was small wonder they seemed to him another life and he himself another person. Nicky had been the dominating human factor; the public life of the times, as it affected his own corner in particular, the chief interest which had kept him hard at work, too busy for the dreams of his unsatisfied youth. He had altered, hardened, sharpened, become more of a man of the world, thought himself contented, and in action and practical affairs drowned mental speculation and emotion.
This was the Ishmael of the late 'seventies, a being altered indeed, but not more so than the England of that period was from the England of the 'fifties and 'sixties. That she had grown, improved, set her house in better order, it would have been futile to deny—the improvements were of the visible kind, patent to all men. That Mr. Disraeli's new policy of Imperialism was to be a great and splendid thing there were few men among the Liberals wise enough to foresee, and Ishmael was not yet amongst them. That he himself had grown, developed, become a useful member of society, no one who knew him would have denied, but whether his growth had been altogether towards the light was another question. The old Parson was a wise and a patient man who had gone too far along life's road to take any stage in it as necessarily final, and he watched and bided the time perhaps more prayerfully, certainly more silently, than of yore. Ishmael never failed in consideration, in affection, but there had grown a barrier that was not entirely made of a difference in politics. He knew it even if Ishmael, the child of his heart, seemed not to care enough one way or the other to be aware of it.
One day, a sunlit blowy day of spring, when the cloud-shadows drew swiftly over the dappled hills and the young corn was showing its first fine flames of green, Ishmael received a letter. Long after it had come he sat with it in his hand, reading and re-reading it. A tinge of excitement, a heady something he had long not felt, because it was purely personal, went through and through him as he read. The letter was from Killigrew, from whom he had heard nothing for several years, and it held news to awake all the old memories in a flood. The letter began by asking for news of Ishmael, and went on with a brief dismissal of the writer's own life during the past years. It had been the "usual thing"—no small measure of success, friendships, women, play and work. What mattered was that Killigrew had suddenly taken it into his head he must come down again to Cloom. He was coming and at once. He gave a few characteristic reasons.
"I have lost something and till yesterday I couldn't for the life of me tell what," wrote Killigrew. "It's been a good time, and I've enjoyed most of it, but suddenly it occurred to me that really I wasn't enjoying it as much as I thought I was, as much as I used to. I lay on the lawn of this confounded suburban villa whence I'm writing to you now—I'm putting in a few days at my mother's—and I was doing nothing particular but think over a lot of old times. And there came into my mind without any warning—flashed into it rather—a saying of my old master's in Paris. He was a wise old bird, the wisest I ever knew—somehow reminds me of your old Padre, though you couldn't meet two men more different. And what I remembered was this. 'The test of any picture, or indeed of any of the arts, is whether or not it evokes ecstasy.' I don't know whether it's the test of the arts, but I know it's the test of life. And that is what I've lost. Ecstasy! One still feels it now and again, of course, but how more and more rarely! Well, I lay on the lawn, with this light flooding in on me, and suddenly I opened my eyes and what do you think I saw? There was a flock of starlings in the sky, and I opened my eyes full on 'em, so that I got 'em against the west, which was full of sunset. They were flying in a dense mass between me and the glow. I could see their beating wings in serried ranks of black V-shapes. And, quite suddenly, at some bird-command communicated—heaven knows how—the whole flock of them heeled over, presenting nothing but the narrow edge of their wings, hair-fine, all but invisible. In that one flashing moment the whole solid crowd of birds seemed to vanish, as though swallowed up by a shutter of sky. I'd never seen it before, and I might have gone through life without the luck to see it. I can tell you, it made me tingle. I could have shouted aloud, but the sound of my own voice would have spoilt it so. I got ecstasy all right that time, and I realised with a pang of gratefulness that it's the impersonal things that produce ecstasy. In personal contact you may get delirium, but that's not the same thing. This, says I, is the sort of thing I'm after. And so of course I thought of you and that wonderful place of yours and that nice solid impersonality that always wrapped you round and made you so restful. So I'm coming down. I won't stay with you; find me digs somewhere—I'm better on my own."
Ishmael read so far, where the letter ended abruptly; there was, however, a postscript:—"P.S.—Do you remember Judith Parminter? She wants a holiday and is coming down with a friend. If Mrs. Penticost is still in the land of the living you might fix up for them there."
Ishmael followed out all Killigrew's instructions, but that night he took the letter over to Boase. It was as though the atmosphere of the old days re-established by its arrival, the habit of the old days, claimed him sub-consciously. The Parson read it, but did not comment beyond the obvious remark that it would all be very pleasant. After Ishmael had gone he sat and thought for a long while. What struck him as noteworthy was that Killigrew should have been satiated with the personal, which he had cultivated so assiduously, at the moment when, or so it seemed to him, Ishmael, after a life spent for so long in the impersonal, might be expected to react in exactly the opposite direction. Ishmael, as he walked home, was only aware that the letter had stirred him beyond the mere pleasurable expectation of once again seeing his friend. That one word "ecstasy" had stung him to something that had long been dormant—the desire to feel life again as something wonderful, that did not only content but could intoxicate as well. He was unaware of this revulsion, and was only vaguely surprised that a queer discontent should mingle with his pleasure.
PARADISE COTTAGE AGAIN
When the train came slowly into the station and clanked to rest with a long, tired sigh of steam, Ishmael's first search was for Killigrew's red beard and pale face. While his gaze roved up and down the line of carriages a couple of women, one of whom seemed to know him, swam into his range of vision and distracted his attention.
It was nearly ten years since he had seen Judith Parminter, and he stared for a moment in bewilderment. Fashion had undergone in those years one of its rare basic changes. Instead of the swelling curves which had been wont to encompass women, so that they seemed to float upon proud waves, skirts had become a species of swaddling clothes caught back below the knees, whence a series of frills clung tightly about the feet. Rows of flutings, tuckings and what-not, confounded simplicity of line, but all the drapery was pulled in a backwards direction and puffed to a sudden bulkiness behind, so that women looked as though they were walking in the face of a perpetual wind. On their heads they were wont to perch delicious little hats, poked forward, in contradistinction to the trend of the draperies, slanting nosewards and tilted up in the rear by plaited chignons.
Of the two women advancing towards Ishmael, the tall dark one, by far the elder, wore under a black silk jacket a gown of soft red, the terra-cotta then beginning to be in vogue amidst the artistic elect, but it was smartly cut, whereas the peacock blue garment of her companion showed a depressing sloppiness, which was not helped out by the drooping rows of many-coloured beads which were slung round her throat or the peacock feathers that trailed from her shovel hat of gauged silk. This girl, Ishmael saw vaguely, had a pale chubby face like a child, but the long, dark countenance of the other, lit by a smile of recognition, was suddenly familiar to him. Only—Judy had become a woman, a thin, rather sad-looking woman, with a melancholy that was not the old effect of tragedy for which her monkey-look and the bistre shadows beneath her eyes had been responsible without any deeper cause. The monkey-look was there still, but Judy was almost beautiful in spite, or perhaps more truly because, of it. Ishmael felt her lean, strong hand, ungloved, come into his.
"I knew it was you!" exclaimed Judy in the husky voice he remembered. "You've changed, but only along the lines one would have expected. Mr. Killigrew can't come—not for a day or two. He told me to tell you he'd try to get down by the end of the week. May I introduce you to Miss Georgie Barlow?"
Another hand was thrust into his, with a sudden gauche movement that was not without a girlish charm. Ishmael found himself looking at the pale chubby face, and the only thing he noticed in it was the mouth. Georgie Barlow stayed in his mind as "the girl with the mouth," as she frequently did to those who met her even once. She had a wonderful mouth, and was wont to declare it to be her only feature. It was not very red, but very tenderly curved, the lips short, flat in modelling and almost as wide at the ends as the centre, which just saved them from being a cupid's bow. The corners were deeply indented, tucked in like those of a child. Not only the lips but the planes of the chin and cheeks immediately around them were good, very tender in colour and curves, with the faint blur of fine golden down to soften them still more.
Such was Georgie Barlow—a short, rounded little creature, with a bare neck that was not long but delicate, and surrounded by three "creases of Venus" like that of a baby. Her rather small but frank blue eyes held a boyish look that was intensified by the fact that her hair was cut short after the new fashion in a certain set and brushed almost to her fair eyebrows in a straight fringe in front, while on the nape of her neck it curved in little drake's tails of soft brown. The blue beads riding up her neck ruffled the tails like tiny feathers.
Both she in her "artistic" way and Judy in her quiet smartness were very different from the women Ishmael had been seeing of late years—the dowdy county ladies or Vassie in her splendid flamboyance. He felt oddly shy with them; the ageing of Judy, so marked and somehow so unexpected—she had seemed such a child only ten years ago—made him feel she was as much of a stranger as her little companion, and there was also about her some new quality he could not but feel, a something aloof, a little hard, for all her gentleness of manner. He had never envisaged her as growing into this self-possessed woman, whose most noticeable quality, had it not been for her aloofness, would have been a certain worldliness. He felt his dreams of the old time rudely upset. Killigrew's erratic defection, the altered feeling of Judy, which made him uncertain even whether to call her by her Christian name as of old or not, the presence of this oddly-attired girl with the mouth, were all so different from what he had been expecting. He told himself that when Killigrew did arrive he also would probably be a different creature from of old, not knowing that exactly what made Killigrew such a wearing person to keep up with was that he never changed, only became more himself.
Judith was not very illuminating on the subject when he questioned her, merely answering him with an affirmative when he asked her whether she had seen a good deal of Killigrew since the old days, and he was forced to keep company with his curiosity till Killigrew should appear out of the blue a few days hence.
Meanwhile, he drove the two ladies to Mrs. Penticost's, Judy saying that as they had luggage she thought it would be simpler to go straight there instead of stopping for supper at the Manor. The next day, however, both were to meet Boase there for tea.
Meanwhile Ishmael had to relinquish them to the care of Mrs. Penticost and go back to the Manor, feeling discontented and unable to settle to anything, while at the same time he was not at all sure he was glad that Killigrew had ever taken it into his head to come down and send his harem, as Ishmael annoyedly termed it to himself, before him. Not so Mrs. Penticost. She still called Judith her lamb, and after folding her to her portly breast was not likely to feel any tremors when she held her off to gaze at her.
"You'm gone through somethen' since I saw 'ee, my dear," she announced candidly. "There's lines under your pretty eyes that dedn' belong to be there. I shouldn' wonder if it wasn't the men as had putt en there. Menfolk are like children—they'm a pack of worry, but the women can't get along happy wethout en."
"Well, at least I haven't any children, Mother Penticost," said Judy, laughing.
"Aren't married, are you, my dear? Mr. Ruan ded say 'Miss Parminter' to I when he came about the rooms."
"No, I'm not married."
"And why's that?" demanded the direct Mrs. Penticost. "Not because they haven't asked 'ee, I'll lay. Couldn't 'ee fancy none of en, my dear sawl?"
"Not enough for that, apparently."
"I used to think you and that Killigrew weth his red head and his free tongue would make a match of it, but I suppose it was not to be.... Never mind, my dear. We never goes to church weth the first one as takes our fancy."
"Oh, I shall never marry!" declared Judith lightly. "By the way, I hear Mr. Ruan has a beautiful boy, Mrs. Penticost."
"Aw, dear sawl, so he have. Best thing that flighty little faggot to the mill ever ded was to make that babe. Children's a deal of trouble, though, so they are. Some has boys and wants maids, and some has only maids and provokes the Lard to send en boys, as though there weren't enough men in the world. No pleasing some folks."
"They're a trouble that's well worth while, anyway. Children, I mean," said Judith.
"Ah! so some of us says as hasn't got en. We can all stand any joys that come along, but we'd all like to have the choosen' of our troubles," replied Mrs. Penticost non-committally.
"I certainly think children must be the nicest troubles one can choose," remarked Judith.
"There's many a poor maid that's thought otherwise," responded Mrs. Penticost.
"Oh, well, I didn't mean that way ... that's a trouble for the children too when they grow up ... worse than for the mother. That's why it's wicked to have them like that. I meant if one were married."
"It's not all honey then, my dear. Look at Jenny Trewen down to the church-town. She'm never had naught but boys, and she sticks every virtue on that maid she always wanted and that never came. 'Twould have been just the same if it had been the other way on, if you see what I do mane. 'Tes the babes as never are born that lie nearest to a mother's heart...."
"What a terrible theory!" broke in Georgie, swinging her legs as she sat perched upon the corner of the table. "And according to the same theory, are the men one never meets the nicest, and the picture one never paints the finest, and the kiss that never comes off the sweetest?"
Mrs. Penticost turned and surveyed her with a kindly tolerance for her impertinent youth.
"You'm spaken' truer than you do knaw," she told her. "And truer than you'll knaw for many a day to come if you'm one of the lucky ones. Now I suppose you'll be like you always were, Miss Judy, washing the life out of 'ee weth hot water? The bath's gone up overstairs."
Judy laughingly got to her feet and went up to her room. She was very tired; though she was tenacious of constitution, the first elasticity of youth was gone from her, and she was glad of the warm water, the soft bed, the light meal of eggs and cocoa that Mrs. Penticost brought her when she was between the sheets. Ishmael was not the only one who felt a deadening of the spirit that night, and even on awakening the following morning. Judith had carried that about with her in her consciousness for enough years now to recognise the old weight upon her thoughts on awakening. But Georgie, triumphant, healthy, full of excitement at the new world that lay beyond the low wall of Paradise Cottage, ran into Judith's room, the "best" bedroom, the one Blanche Grey had had when the childish Judy had been wont to come in as Georgie came in to the woman Judy now. The turn of the wheel struck upon Miss Parminter's mind as she lay and watched the slim, sturdy young thing perched upon the end of the bed, her boyish head bare and a ray of morning sun tingeing its soft brown to a brighter hue and showing up the clearness of her pale matt skin.
"I don't think I much like your hero of romance," grumbled Georgie. "He took precious little notice of either of us, and he looks so surly."
"He's not my hero," objected Judy, "he's Joe's; and I'm sure he isn't really surly. I think he was disappointed at not seeing Joe."
"Well, it was very ungallant of him when we turned up all right. I have a good mind to flirt outrageously with him to punish him. And when he's deeply in love with me I shall say 'No, thank you, sir! I've no use for surly squires, and I've a young man of my own at home.'"
"Georgie, you're to do nothing of the sort. You know I told you all about him to make you careful. He was abominably treated by that cat Blanche, and I won't have it happen again."
"Well, I don't suppose I shall have a chance. I don't suppose he'll look at me. I don't think country bumpkins are educated up to my peculiar style of beauty." And Georgie stroked her ridiculous little nose with an affectation of content.
"Thank heaven you aren't a beauty, or there'd be no holding you at all!"
"That's just where you mistake. If I were really pretty, instead of having a petit minois chiffone I should be able to sit placidly and leave it all to my profile. As it is I have to exert myself to charm, and everyone knows charm is far more fatal to man than mere looks. I am rather fascinating, aren't I, in spite of my pudding face? What was Blanche like, Judy? Didn't you see her the other day in town?"
"Yes, I met her at a Private View," admitted Judy. "She had sort of gone to pieces, if you know what I mean. I don't suppose it was a sudden process really, but it came on me suddenly."
"What did she look like?"
"As large as life and twice as unnatural. She had lost her 'eye' for making up, as they say everyone does, and the rouge stood out on the white powder so that you could see it a mile off. She gushed at me, and I felt she wasn't meaning a single word she said. She had her husband with her and introduced him. She even patronised me for not having one. I didn't say I'd sooner not than have one like hers, because she wouldn't have believed me, and it would have been rude. But he was a little wisp of a man—a seedy little clerk. She knew she couldn't carry off the idea of having made a good match from a worldly point of view, so she murmured something to me about how beautiful true love was when it was the 'real thing,' and how she had never known what the meaning of life was till she met 'Teddie.' Do stop me; I'm being an awful cat! But that woman aroused all the cat in me; she's such an awful liar, and a liar is the worst of sinners, because he—or perhaps more generally she—is so absolutely disintegrating to the whole social fabric."
"I suppose she must have been very fascinating once upon a time."
"She was, though, oddly enough, men either hated her or were deeply in love with her, and as time went on the sort that were in love with her grew more and more fearful. But it was young girls she attracted most. I used to think her the most wonderful thing in the world, and I used to be enraged if I introduced her to anyone and they hated her at sight. If one's eye for making up gets out as one grows older, one's eye for life gets a more and more deadly clearness—unless you're like Blanche, when I suppose you grow more and more incapable of seeing the truth."
"You think an awful lot about truth, don't you, Judy?"
"Yes, I do, though I suppose if you knew all about me you'd think it very inconsistent. Of course I don't mean just 'telling the truth,' as children say, but the actual worship of truth in our relations with each other and ourselves. But it's not a counsel of worldly wisdom, so don't pay any attention to me."
"But I want to. I admire you ever so," said Georgie girlishly. "I know that I'm an awful little beast in all sorts of ways, but I would love to be like you if I could."
"Heaven forbid!" ejaculated Judy.
"Well, as much as would suit my style," laughed Georgie. "But tell me, Judy, what sort of thing d'you call being badly untruthful—the sort that matters? I'll tell you the sort of thing I do, and I can't help myself. I hate myself, but I can't stop. You know just before I got engaged to Val?"
"Well, we were at that house on the river, and Val came down for the day, and mother knew we were going to get engaged, I suppose; anyway, she didn't make the usual fuss about being alone, and we went out in the punt and took lunch to a backwater. I didn't even really think he cared for me that kind of way; I was only wondering. I'd been washing my hair when he arrived, and it wasn't quite dry. This was before I cut it off, you know. And so—I thought I'd take it down and finish drying it...."
"Go on. I've done that myself," murmured Judith dryly.
"Well, I was sitting a little in front of him on the bank and a little bit of my hair blew in his face. I manoeuvred so that it should. Beast that I am! And later, when I was doing it up again, he handed me the pins and said, 'Ripping stuff it is, Georgie!' It was the first day he called me Georgie, and you can't think how often he did it. Why do men always call hair 'stuff,' I wonder? Well—oh, where was I? Oh, I know. And then he added, 'It was blowing across my face just now.' And I said, 'Oh, was it? I hope it didn't tickle. Why on earth didn't you tell me?' And he said, 'I loved it' in a funny sort of fat voice. As though I hadn't known, and hadn't planned for just that.... I think that's the sort of thing that makes me hate myself, and yet I can't help it."
Judith lay silent. She was too used to playing every move in her power with full knowledge of the effect to blame this child for tampering with forces which she was blandly innocent of understanding.
"I don't think that 'mattered,' as you call it," she said at length. "After all, you're honest with yourself, that's the chief thing. I admit if you go on being dishonest with others in time it has a deadly tendency to react on yourself and blur your vision, as it did with Blanche, but then she was crooked anyway. I shouldn't worry about myself if I were you, Georgie!"
"Well, it deceived Val, I suppose," remarked Georgie.
"Not about anything vital. He loved you already, and you were to find you loved him. Besides ... with men ... it's not quite the same thing...."
Georgie stared at her in round-eyed silence for a moment, struck by a weary something that was no more old than young, that was eternal, in Judith's voice. Suddenly the elder girl seemed so much woman as she lay there—the everlasting feminine, the secret store of the knowledge of the ages.... Georgie, for all she was newly engaged, felt somehow like a little girl. Judith's long half-closed eyes met hers, but with no frank giving in their depths at the moment. She was withdrawn and Georgie felt it.
"Well, I must get up," said Judith suddenly. "Clear out and see if you can hurry Mrs. Penticost over breakfast."
Georgie went, and Judith slipped out of bed, and going to the window, examined her face in the clear morning light, lifting her hand-glass at many angles.
After her bath she took up the glass again and began with infinite care to rub in first rouge and then powder. Gradually she became a less haggard-looking creature and the years seemed to fall away. When she had done she examined herself anxiously. The dread that her eye would get "out," as Blanche's had, was upon her.
Relieved by the scrutiny, she stepped into a soft rose cashmere frock and buttoned up the long, close-fitting bodice, settled the little ruffle at the throat, and adjusted with deft fingers the perky folds of the bustle. "Making-up makes one look so much better that it makes one feel better," she reflected. She took a final look at herself in the dimpled glass that gave back her figure in a series of waves and angles, and suddenly she gave a little half-rueful laugh. She was comparing herself with the slangy fresh girl downstairs, that product of the new decade, so different from the generation born only ten years before her. Judith had spoken to this wholesome, adorably gauche young creature of truth, while, to maintain the thing that stood to her for light and food and truth itself, she had, amongst other shifts, to resort even to this daily paltering with the verities upon her face.
WHAT NICKY DID
Killigrew arrived a couple of days later, and Ishmael drove Georgie over to meet him. Judith had refused to go and Georgie liked the idea of a drive. Ishmael was still shy in Georgie's presence, simply because he had never met anyone in the least like her. He was only a matter of some thirteen or fourteen years her senior, but that made all the difference at that period. Ishmael had been born in the midst of the dark, benighted 'forties; Georgie at the beginning of the 'sixties. He had grown up before any of the reforms which made modern England; she had first become intelligently aware of the world at a time when nothing else was in the air, when even woman was beginning to feel her wings and be wishful to test them. She was alarmingly modern, the emancipated young thing who began to blossom forth in the late 'seventies and early 'eighties; she studied painting at an art school, and had announced her intention to her alarmed but admiring parents of "living her own life." There was a horrid rumour that she had once been dared to smoke and had done so. Her aggressively "arty" dress was only the temporary expression of her fluid and receptive mind feeling and trying for itself. Her frankness was disconcerting at first, yet somehow very delightful too.... It made him feel young also; it was as though she were perpetually telling him things that took him into a conspiracy with her.
Judy had made him feel old; all the time he was aware of things in her life of which he was ignorant, and though he had never been intimate enough with her to mind this, yet it did not tend towards intimacy now. There was always the knowledge of Blanche and Phoebe between him and any friendliness with Judith, knowledge of so much he had resolutely put behind him. But with this careless girl, so untouched and confident, it was as though it were possible to be the self he felt that he now was without any drag from that old Ishmael. He knew vaguely that she was engaged, and this seemed to make intercourse lighter and more jolly. Every relationship is new, because to no two people is anyone quite the same, but there was in the first tentative approaches of his acquaintance with Georgie Barlow a novelty that struck him pleasantly. He was shy of her only because he was still so ignorant, but he felt no barriers, rather an overlapping of something they both had in common, which is the surest herald sometimes of friendship, sometimes of other things.
Killigrew arrived with a copy of "Richard Feverel" under one arm and the first edition of Fitzgerald's "Omar Khayyam" under the other. He exuded life and enjoyment, and Ishmael wondered what indigestion, mental or physical could have had him in its grip when he felt that the power of ecstasy was slipping. Certainly he seemed to bubble with it now, though it remained to be seen whether what chiefly evoked it were the impersonal things of life or not. It was impossible to feel any shyness with him, and even Ishmael soon was talking and feeling curiously unscathed when Killigrew unabashedly referred to old times, painful and otherwise. "It is only Joe ..." Ishmael reflected, which was the fatal leniency that had pursued Killigrew through life.
Georgie left the two men to spend the evening together and went back to Paradise Cottage, but before she fell asleep that night she heard a low murmur of voices outside. She jumped out of bed and ran to the window. It was a night of bright moonlight, and under the shadow of the tamarisk hedge she could see Killigrew's darker figure, with its unmistakably raking poise. Another shadow had just parted from it and was coming to the door—the figure of Judith. She had been out when Georgie entered—out for a walk, Mrs. Penticost had said. Georgie skipped back to bed full of excitement. She had guessed before that Judy cared about Killigrew, and now, judging by that parting, they were engaged and everything was to be all right. How thrilling!... She smiled and dimpled as she met Judy's eye next morning, inviting the announcement.
The days went on and Judy did not make it. Only as the lovely spring days, pale with windy sunlight or soft with fuming mists, slipped by, Judith blossomed as the rose. But it was a fierce blossoming, a fiery happiness, that Georgie could not understand. It was not thus that the nice jolly Val had made her feel. She wondered and she felt a little hurt that Judy should not confide in her, but as the days went on her own affairs began to engross her, and she shrugged her sturdy self-reliant shoulders and told herself that Judy must after all manage her own affairs.
It was a wonderful spring, the sweetest time of the year because the period of promise and not of fulfilment. This spring, in its wine-pale clarity, its swift shadows, its dewy brightness of flame-green leaf, seemed to Ishmael to hold the quality of youth as none had done for years. He and Nicky and Joe Killigrew and the two girls from Paradise Cottage spent whole days together, for Joe and Judith, though obviously very intimate, never seemed to wish for solitude. Together they fronted the winds and the quick showers and the bright rays, saw the rainbow lift over the dark sea, watched its passionate colour die and the sunbright foam fade to pearly dimness or break over water turned to vivid blue. They heard the first bird-notes begin to glorify the evenings and saw each day the hedges grow richer with pink campion, with pale drifts of primroses and the blue clusters of the dog-violets. The blackthorn began to show a breaking of pale blossom upon its branches and the hawthorn to vie with it.